Robert St. John loves being back on Blackberry Farm, Tennessee
My wife and I first came to Blackberry Farm in Walland, Tennessee, in the 1990s. We returned for our 10th wedding anniversary, and then started coming in the summer months after dropping our two children off at summer camp. Today we are here for our 25th wedding anniversary. After all of these years, and millions of miles travelled, all over the world, Blackberry Farm still feels like the most civilized 4,200 acres on the planet.
There are five-star hotels in major metropolitan capitals that certainly “wow” people. Europe’s Michelin-starred restaurants are very impressive. The service at most of those places is notable. Though I have yet to encounter a place — in America or Europe — that “feels” as good as Blackberry Farm. This place combines all of those elements in a serene, pastoral setting with world-class views. It’s 100 percent of what I love in a two to three-day getaway.
Nestled in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains about 40 miles south of Knoxville lies the most refined country inn I’ve ever known. The property is just over the mountain range from Pigeon Forge, yet it’s a world away. There is no golf course on the property, nor any of the typical things one would find at an archetypical American resort. At its core, Blackberry Farm is about food. That is why I connected to this place so many years ago.
In the 1970s, Sandy Beall and his wife Kreis, began the process of turning an old country inn into a small retreat. Refined and tastefully designed cottages were added around the time we discovered this place. In those days, the Bealls’ son, Sam — who had just returned from a stint in California that included stops at culinary school, Cowgirl Creamery, The Ritz Carlton and The French Laundry — was the sommelier in the main dining room. His mother, Kreis Beall, seemed to be running the show. Over the next decade, Sam took the culinary lessons, wine experience, and service training he gained in California and combined it with his childhood experience growing up at Blackberry Farm and turned this place into a first-class destination with impeccable service standards.
Sadly, Sam passed away in a tragic skiing accident two years ago. His wife, Mary Celeste Beal, has taken over as proprietor, and hasn’t missed a beat. Under her husband’s vision, this place grew from a small country inn to a world-class food, wine and music destination that has hosted some of the greatest artisans, chefs, winemakers and artists from across the globe. There is no reason to think that the Beall vision won’t be realized for generations to come.
The property runs on the American plan and all meals and lodging are included in the price of the stay. Breakfast is served in the main house (the original inn). Lunch is served there, too, but can also be packed as a picnic and delivered at any place on the property. Dinner is also served in the main house, but several years ago, Sam realized a lifelong vision and built a culinary cathedral that celebrates Southern dining in a unique and refined way in an impressive building they call The Barn.
Beall’s barn is unlike any barn on the planet, with a cellar that houses one of the largest private wine collections in the country. Blackberry’s culinary reputation was birthed by Chef John Fleer, though it was Sam who took it to world-class heights at The Barn.
When the barn was built, Beall brought on master gardener John Coykendall to grow vegetables. Coykedall’s knowledge of heirloom seeds and vegetables is extensive. The first time I met him, he asked me where I lived. After I told him, he walked to the back of his gardening shed and started digging around in a few small seed-bin drawers and pulled out some heirloom purple-hull pea seeds from a long-forgotten variety that were grown in Lawrence County, Mississippi, 45-miles west of my hometown. I recently read an article about Coykendall’s discovery of a Pearl River County peanut that had been grown down there by a family since the 1850s. I plan to stop by the gardeners shed to see if I can talk him out of a few of those, too.
People seem to fall into two getaway categories — beach or mountain. I have never really thought about it before now, but if someone were to ask my three favorite getaway locations in all of the world, I would have to say the hills of Tuscany, the Rocky Mountains and the foothills of the Smokies at Blackberry Farm.
File us under “mountain.” It’s good to be back.
Blackberry Farm’s shaved-beef picnic sandwich
1 strip loin
Chipotle pepper marinade*
Balsamic onion spread*
Large baguettes, slightly toasted
Romaine lettuce, whole leaves
Clean the strip loin. Pin it with a jaccard (tenderize the beef). Smear the chipotle pepper marinade on two days prior to grilling it. Grill over high heat to sear. Finish the beef in to oven to an internal temperature of 120 degrees. Chill. Once chilled, shave thin on a slicer or with a very sharp knife. Pour the peanut sauce over top of the sliced beef. Mix thoroughly. Build your sandwich: cut a v-shaped top out of the whole baguette (like Subway).
Spread the balsamic onion spread on the bottom of the bread. Layer in romaine lettuce. Layer in beef. Top with pepper relish and the v-shaped bread. Cut according to how large of a sandwich you want.
Chipotle pepper marinade
2 Tbsp. ground chipotle pepper
4 ounces balsamic white vinegar
4 ounces vegetable oil
4 tsp. roasted garlic puree
Mix all ingredients together. Season with salt and pepper if necessary.
1-¾ cup unsalted dry peanuts
1 Tbsp. peanut oil
1 Tbsp. curry powder or paste
1 Tbsp. sugar
2 cups (one 14-ounce can) coconut milk
¼ cup soy sauce
1 Tbsp. lime juice
1 Tbsp. wasabi powder
Place peanuts in a food processor until crushed. Be careful not to puree them.
Place the peanut oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat; add the curry paste and whisk for 30 seconds. Whisk in the sugar and coconut milk and cook over medium-low heat, whisking, until smooth and thick, about 5 minutes. Do not boil. Add the crushed peanuts.
Add the soy sauce, lime juice and whisk in wasabi powder. Taste and add more sugar, soy or lime if necessary. Cool sauce.
Balsamic onion spread
4 Vidalia onions, thinly sliced
¼ cup olive oil
½ tsp. kosher salt
1 cup balsamic vinegar, reduced to ¼ cup (syrup consistency)
Toss the onion in olive oil and salt. Slowly caramelize onions in a large sauté pan over medium heat until a deep brown in color. Deglaze the pan when necessary with a splash of white wine. When the onions are caramelized, remove onions from pan. Add reduced balsamic vinegar to the onions and puree together in a blender. If onions will not blend, add an additional 1 Tbsp. of balsamic vinegar of the mixture and puree.
2 red bell peppers, small dice
2 green bell peppers, small dice
1-½ Vidalia onion, small dice
1/3 cup + 1 Tbsp. sugar
1/3 + 1 pinch kosher salt
½ tsp. yellow mustard seed
½ tsp. celery seed
Pinch of turmeric
2 ounces cider vinegar
2 ounces malt vinegar
Pulse peppers and onions in a food processor (they should not pureed, but brunoise-like). Bring sugar, salt, mustard seed, celery seed, turmeric and vinegars to a boil in a medium saucepan. Stir in peppers and onions and simmer for 15 minutes. Spread on a sheet pan and cool.
Blackberry Farm’s asparagus bread pudding
Yield: Seven 8-ounce ramekins
2 cups small diced yellow onion
1 cup small diced celery
2 cups small diced red bell pepper
8 ounces (8-10 spears) asparagus, blanched, shocked large dice
1 tsp. olive oil
1 tsp. minced garlic
¼ cup muscadine wine
1 Tbsp. chopped fine basil
1 Tbsp. chopped fine parsley
13 ounces (12-15 thin slices) dried and cubed bread
1 Tbsp. salt
1 tsp. cracked black pepper
1 cup *crème fraîche
1 cup whole milk
1 tsp. ground mustard
Pinch of ground ginger
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Sauté onion, celery, and red pepper in 1 tsp. olive oil for 1 minute. Add garlic and continue for 30 more seconds. Deglaze the pan with muscadine wine, (muscadine is preferred due to its sweetness). Let cool.
Place vegetables and the bread cubes in a large mixing bowl. Add blanched shocked asparagus, herbs, eggs, crème fraîche, milk and dried spices. When mixed well, let sit for 30 minutes, refrigerated, allowing the bread to soak up some of the liquid.
Spray 8-ounce ramekins with pan spray. Fill ramekins ¾ full with bread pudding mixture. Place in a deep glass, stainless steel, or porcelain dish. Cover with foil and bake for 15 minutes. Remove aluminum foil and continue to bake for an additional 15 to 20 minutes until firm and golden brown. Loosen bread pudding from around the edges with a knife and turn out onto a bowl.
We usually accompany the asparagus bread pudding with a broth of reduced mushroom stock, heavy cream and fresh herbs, a sauté of fresh wild mushrooms and caramelized cauliflower.
Note: *Crème fraîche can be substituted for with sour cream. If you want to make crème fraîche allow 2 days. Combine 1 quart heavy cream with ¼ cup buttermilk in a hot container (i.e. one that has just been run through the dishwasher or run under very hot water for a few minutes and dried). Cover the mixture tightly and place in a warm spot in your kitchen (near the stove). After 2 days, store in the refrigerator and you have crème fraîche.
Robert St. John is a Hattiesburg chef, restaurant owner and the author of several cookbooks. To learn more about his recipes and restaurants, visit robertstjohn.com.